The debate surrounding inequality has been prevalent in political and economic thought since the French Revolution. From then on, we have lived through different periods in which levels of inequality have fluctuated considerably. The current debate about inequality is marked by a sharp division between conservative and progressive approaches. On one hand, there are those who claim that modern differences in people’s wealth are the product of property, entrepreneurship and meritocracy. On the other, a more progressive block believes that inequality is neither economic, social or biological but instead, ideological and historical. For these thinkers, inequality could be fixed with policy making and civil society empowerment.
Dr. Martinez-Tapia received both his BA and Ph.D. from Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Political Science with an emphasis on political parties in comparative perspective. He also gained his MA in International Relations from the University of Manchester (U.K.) and has been visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Democracy in the University of California, Irvine and at Harvard University’s Dept. of Government. Outside academia, he served as communication advisor to the Vicepresident of Spain from 2005 to 2007 with mainly speechwriting responsibilities. His most recent book, Los problemas no resueltos de la democracia. Centro y periferia en España (Madrid: Arrebato Libros, 2016), prologued by Arend Lijphart, analyses the political strategies of nationalist parties in Basque Country and Catalonia from and elite behavior’s perspective, using Manifesto Research Group content analysis data.
Inequality and you
Everyone is talking about inequality. Politicians, journalists and professors. While the debate has been rather present for quite a long time in “developing societies”, new attention has been drawn to the increasing distribution gap between the few rich and the many poor in the so-called advanced industrial societies. From Scandinavia to the United States, inequality is the “talk of the town”. Ever since Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez started working on inequality at the turn of the 21st century there has been a new wave of both defenders of inequality as a motivating social device to keep competition and meritocracy running and proponents of the new “equality revolution”. On the one hand, business as usual; on the other, fix-it or face-the-consequences.
What is inequality? When does inequality becomes a problem? And, more importantly, why some people think that it is the mother of all evils while others talk about an inevitable collateral damage of capitalism, perhaps even of liberal democracy? The debate is open, alive and kicking. In the European Union, explanations about Brexit draws on inequality among Britons; the yellow-vests movement in France is composed by a heterogeneous mass of angry disinherited Frenchmen and women claiming the “liberté, egalité and fraternité” they were promised; in the finally-unified Germany, Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) is fishing thousands of votes among Germans who demand their right to be equal to their Western brothers; in the United States, go figure, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaim socialist is seriously contesting the primaries of the Democratic party. The new decade will probably be dominated by the inequality issue. What is going on? Who is right and who is wrong?
Inequality is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the quality of being unequal or uneven: such as a)social disparity, b)disparity of distribution or opportunity, and c)lack of evenness”. Wikipedia does not even have a definition. But the data seems clear. Inequality raises again from the 1980s until today. And it does not look as something so easy to be reduced.
Of course, the debate on inequality admittedly taps a long-term ideological confrontation between political economists and philosophers starting around the time of the French Revolution. The history of inequality perhaps touched its climax at the time of the French revolution when a new system of sociopolitical and economic relations was launched. After many centuries of fragile equilibrium, finally, numbers tipped the scale of social injustice. Until then, the narrative to justify inequality laid on rigid, random and often despotic differences of status. The “Guillotine” worked its magic to shower societies worldwide with equality based on the newly gained human’s good nature with the indispensable aid of secular education. The game had changed and the players were all. Brave new world.
There surely are many different explanations for what happened after but, simplifying the debate so we could get something out of it,two groups of political philosophers and economists could be seen as generating different narratives. As stated by Piketty in his last book, Capital and Ideology, “(…) every epoch therefore develops a range of contradictory discourses and ideologies for the purpose of legitimizing the inequality that already exists or that people believe should exist” (p.1). And those different narratives, often opposed, will serve as basis for policies, social relations and the ethical foundations of living together. Since the French Revolution probably there are two main narratives that correspond to the two different ideological discourses, with variations of degree, until our days:
The first narrative is grounded on the political fiction of the day: liberalism. A first group of liberals, normally associated with economic liberalism, will put liberty at the core of their economies, lives and the political system. Here, probably drawing on the seminal work of Adam Smith, we can find many some of the so-called American Founding Fathers as well as J.S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich von Hayek, Ayn Rand, James Buchanan and Milton Friedman alongside neo-liberal policy-makers such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. For the most part, conservative stars.
The second narrative also departures from liberalism, but differently understood. This group will be composed by the so-called liberals who will give priority to equality, even to the point of forcing it onto society. Here is not so difficult to see more or less radical movements in their journey from the center to the extreme-left of the ideological scale: from social-democrats to socialists to communists to anarchists. Karl Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, John Maynard Keynes, J. K. Galbrait, and more recently, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty probably the most famous of them.
The 19th century can be seen as the century of equality. While there were many things at stake, no other issue was as prevalent as this. Liberalism had arrived to bridge the immense gap between the bottom and the top. A succession of political revolutions together with advancements in technology, medicine, the arts and sciences radically transformed life in the Western world and, gradually, everywhere else. Most of these changes did not happen overnight, but it seemed that progress was unstoppable. By the end of the 19th century, while inequality reached its peak, it also revealed its potential as a revolutionary force. World War I and the Russian Revolution will have a definitive impact on the history of equality and convinced many elites of the necessity of reducing socioeconomic differences or suffering the consequences of it. Welfare or warfare. Relatively simple to understand.
Thomas Piketty and others have comprehensively documented the change. Levels of inequality were then reduced giving rise to a radically egalitarian society. Mass democracy, while not free of enemies, was in its way transforming the lives and expectations of people. It will finally be after 1945 when things started falling into place. The post World War II egalitarian euphoria promised a better life for most worldwide. And it delivered.
Simon Kuznets in 1955 claimed that income inequality would automatically decrease in advanced phases of capitalist development, regardless of economic policy choices until it stabilized at an acceptable level. For his contribution and his Kuznets curb he would be awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics. Western academics and publics were running high and the 1960s were read as the culmination of the Enlightment.
But another big crisis of capitalism, in the mid 1970s will again challenge our ways of understanding the new resulting inequalities. Again, the date speaks for itself. And again the two narratives will try to justify the new levels on inequality between people and the different sociopolitical consequences of them.
On the one hand, leaning towards conservatism, a narrative that claims that modern differences in people’s wealth are the product of property, entrepreneurship and meritocracy. Everyone enjoys the same access to the education and economic markets, to property and success which normally benefits, by the art of some invisible hand, to the most enterprising, capable, and special people. Some sort of socioeconomic Darwinism in various degrees that reserves the wonders of human living to the best-adapted individuals expelling, by the same token, the weakest, less talented and less gifted to the margins of the social highway. For this narrative and its defenders, there is always some “natural” legitimacy for inequality that turns it into not only unavoidable but also expected and derived from a biological destiny. And, of course, the no-alternative narrative.
On the other hand, a reformulated progressive left-wing discourse, a reformulated new deal, a new human ecology that aims to build a new universalistic and egalitarian philosophy. For these people, inequality is not economic nor social nor biological but ideological and historical. And it could be fixed with policy making and civil society empowerment. The positions range from apocalyptic pessimism to activist optimism. Behind inequality they see most of the evils that threaten 21st century democracy from nationalism to populism, from xenophobia to gender violence, from gambling to drug abuse, from obesity to loneliness.
Two clear-cut positions drawing on two distinctive and opposing ideologies that compete to become the hegemonic narrative in our globalized societies. And the one-million-dollar question is: where are you?